As soon as I realize that we would be eating supper in the dark if it weren’t for the wondrous invention of the electric light, I get hit with the urge to make Christmas cookies. I chomp at the bit until Thanksgiving passes (according to my personal laws and regulations, Christmas is not allowed to swerve out into the passing lane and cut off Thanksgiving) and then, only then, do I set free my inner child and start tossing flour and sugar all around the kitchen like nobody’s business. I have no limits, I exercise no restraint, I have no shame, and it is marvelous. (The grocery bills don’t exactly make Mr. Handsome sing for joy, but he doesn’t do much complaining when his mouth is full.)
The first cookie I made this season was one that I haven’t made for a couple years because I could always count on my mother to bake them and then share with us—raisin-filled cookies. But this year I didn’t want to wait around for my mother to start baking. I wanted those cookies all for myself, and right away, please. So on Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of a long day of solid rain, I stuck Handel’s Messiah in the CD player and took the rolling pin in my own two hands.
These old-fashioned raisin-filled cookies (a little spoonful of ground nuts and raisins tucked between two rounds of sugar cookie dough, the edges pressed gently together, and then the final touch—the only bit of adornment allowed—one little raisin poked into their caps when they are still hot from the oven) are plain yet comforting, honest in their unassuming modesty. In fact, they are so simple that many an unknowing person unwittingly bypasses them for the more glitzy sugar bombs—the gooey lemon cookies, the chocolate-nut toffees, the iced gingerbread men. Therefore, we don’t usually share these cookies with complete strangers because we’ve learned it takes a certain kind of person, mainly one of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, to fully appreciate these labor intensive sweet cakes. But for those of us who grew up with them? Oh my, do we ever love our raisin cookies!
From the way I’m going on about these cookies, it’s probably pretty obvious that they played a central role in our Christmas celebrations. I remember my father helping my mother set up the old metal meat grinder that she used to mash up the raisins and then watching, entranced, as the ground raisins, dark, moist, and richly fragrant, slowly snaked their way out of the side of the machine and softly plopped into the waiting bowl. My brothers and I would sometimes help to roll and cut the dough (with my mother in the background forever warning us against over-working it), and we’d wait impatiently by the oven for the cookies to finish baking so we could perform the raisin-poking honors.
Nowadays I use a screaming food processor to chop up my raisins and walnuts (my mother left out the nuts), so for a few very loud moments the atmosphere in my kitchen is not quite as romantic as it was back in the good old, food processor-less days (which, by the way, still persist in my mother’s house). But then I’m done with the obnoxious (but oh-so-marvelous) machine and peace is restored and goodwill reigneth (until the Baby Nickel starts smashing his fists into my freshly cut circles of dough, but I’m ignoring that part for the sake of the romanticized Christmas cookie baking ideal that I’m forever striving after).
Regardless of the method used, these cookies still produce the same results: my kids delight in these Christmas treats in the same way that my brothers and I did when we were little. And in this way, via raisin-filled cookies, I am completing one of my life’s (hopefully many) full circles. If only all traditions could be so delicious.
Now it’s your turn. What’s one (or two or three) of your Christmas baking traditions?
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter
These cookies are plain enough to be a part of the main meal (and they are probably much healthier than what many people call muffins), so as well as eating them for dessert, afternoon snacks, and with a glass of milk before bedtime, we sometimes also enjoy them for breakfast along with our cereal.
There is always a little raisin filling left over after assembling the cookies (this time I had about half a cup extra), and it’s very yummy stirred into a bowl of warm breakfast oatmeal. As a matter of fact, you may find that you like the raisin-walnut puree topping so much that you decide to make a batch of filling for the sole purpose of globbing it atop your hot cereal.
A note about rolling out cookies: Remember that less flour makes a more tender cookie. You want your dough to be floured enough that you can handle it, but still sticky enough that you get mad at it every now and then for gumming up the rolling pin, your fingers, the tabletop, etc.
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
5 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 recipe raisin filling (recipe follows)
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat some more. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients and then add them to the creamed butter alternately with the milk.
Cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for about four hours or overnight. (It freezes well, too.)
On a well-floured counter, roll out the dough till it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter (I used a drinking glass) that is about two inches in diameter to cut out cookie rounds. Place the rounds on greased cookie sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies (they will spread quite a bit as they bake).
Put a teaspoon of filling in the center of each cookie and then top with another circle of dough. Gently press down on the edges of the top cookie so that it sticks to the bottom cookie. (There is no need to use a liquid to stick the cookies together because the dough softens as soon as it hits the heat and the two cookies quickly melt together.)
Bake the cookies in a 350 degree oven for 10-13 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned (a little bit of brown gives the cookies good flavor), and the tops look dry.
Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for two minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. While the cookies are still quite warm, poke a single, solitary raisin in the top of each cookie, pushing it down far enough so that it won’t easily fall off, but not in so far that it disappears from sight. (This is a good job for the impatiently lurking kiddies.)
Yield: About four to five dozen cookies.
2 cups raisins
½ cup walnuts
1 tablespoon thermflo
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water
Put the raisins and walnuts into the food processor and pulse till they are finally chopped. (Or put them through a food mill or finely chop them with a knife.)
Put the sugar, thermflo, and water in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Add the chopped nuts and fruit. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, till the mixture has thickened — about 5-8 minutes at a gentle simmer. Remove it from the burner and cool to room temperature. At this point you can use it to fill the cookies, or you can store it in a covered container in the refrigerator (or freezer) till a later date.
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